You have the right to protest as an American. Here’s what that means

George Floyd’s death has ignited national conversations, protests

Several thousand demonstrators gather in Oakland, Calif., on Monday, June 1, 2020, to protest the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Noah Berger) (Noah Berger)

The death of George Floyd has ignited an important national conversation as many are taking to the streets with protests, rallies and marches.

While law enforcement and police brutality remain at the semi-center of many protests, demonstrators also march and cry for lost lives, lost opportunities, and supposed inherent rights that are elusive to many.

If you plan to join or organize your own protest, you need to know that you have rights and, even more importantly, what they entail. Below, the American Civil Liberties Union provides context to the rights you have to enact change, and what to do should a protest do awry.

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What are my rights to protest?

When asked about protests surrounding the death of George Floyd, Jackie Azis, staff attorney with the ACLU, said that the First Amendment “protects the right of every person in the United States to register their dissent -- to protest what they know to be an unjust, racist system.”

This First Amendment right in terms of a protest typically takes place in public places that the ACLU recognizes as “traditional public forums,” such as streets, sidewalks, and parks.

“When you are lawfully present in any public space, you have the right to photograph anything in plain view, including federal buildings and the police,” Azis said.

ACLU resources said you also likely have the right to protest on other public property, like plazas in front of government buildings, as long as you are not blocking access to the government building or interfering with other purposes for which the property was designed.

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Private property is also fair ground for protests, as long as you have permission to be there or you own that property.

“Private property owners can set rules for speech on their property,” members of the ACLU said. “The government may not restrict your speech if it is taking place on your own property or with the consent of the property owner.”

It is also important to know that you do not need a permit to march in the streets or on sidewalks, as long as marchers don’t obstruct car or pedestrian traffic. If you don’t have a permit, police officers can ask you to move to the side of a street or sidewalk to let others pass or for safety reasons, according to the ACLU.

If law enforcement shuts down a protest through a dispersal order, it must be as a last resort, according to the ACLU.

“Police may not break up a gathering unless there is a clear and present danger of riot, disorder, interference with traffic, or other immediate threat to public safety,” ACLU officials said.

If I’m peacefully protesting and approached by police, what should I do?

As with many situations that have the tendency to escalate quickly, the best thing to do if you are protesting and are approached by police is to stay calm.

“Stay calm. Make sure to keep your hands visible. Don’t argue, resist, or obstruct the police, even if you believe they are violating your rights. Point out that you are not disrupting anyone else’s activity and that the First Amendment protects your actions,” Azis said.

You can ask the officer if you are free to leave after being approached and if they say yes, then you can calmly walk away. If the officer places you under arrest, you have the right to ask why, Azis said, encouraging protesters to remain silent and ask for a lawyer immediately.

“Don’t say anything or sign anything without a lawyer. You have the right to make a local phone call, and if you’re calling your lawyer, police are not allowed to listen,” Azis said.

Azis also gave the following guidelines to remember if you are arrested:

  • You have the right to make a local phone call, and if you’re calling your lawyer, police are not allowed to listen.
  • You never have to consent to a search of yourself or your belongings. If you do explicitly consent, it can affect you later in court.
  • Police may “pat down” your clothing if they suspect you have a weapon and may search you after an arrest.
  • Police officers may not confiscate or demand to view your photographs or video without a warrant, nor may they delete data under any circumstances. However, they may order citizens to cease activities that are truly interfering with legitimate law enforcement operations.

Following your arrest, Azis said you need to take a deep breath and try to remember everything you can from the incident.

“When you can, write down everything you remember, including the officers’ badge and patrol car numbers and the agency for which they work. Get contact information for witnesses. Take photographs of any injuries,” Azis said. “Once you have all of this information, you can file a written complaint with the agency’s internal affairs division or civilian complaint board if you suffered any injuries.”

If I want to protest but am unable, what can I do to show support for reform and change?

Not everyone is able to attend or organize protests for varying reasons, but that doesn’t mean they can voice their concerns through alternate channels that are equally as valid.

Azis outlined ways people can show support for reform and change without physically attending a protest:

  • Amplify the protests on social media
  • Call and write your elected officials and tell them you demand institutional change including improvements on police practices, including body camera requirements, bias training, de-escalation training, establish civilian review boards, and holding police accountable.
  • Call and write your local elected officials, such as your State Attorney and Sheriff, and demand that they start compiling and publishing statistics of arrests, convictions, and sentences based on race, so that we can work to address the racial disparities within the criminal justice system.
  • Vote your values and vote for candidates that will hold police officers accountable
  • Write a letter to your local law enforcement department
  • Donate to organizations bailing people out from custody for protesting
  • Donate to organizations working for racial justice, criminal justice reform and protesters’ rights

What are some resources for people who want to enact change or want to become a better ally?

If you’re looking for ways to learn about how to be a better ally to communities that are hurting, a good place to start is by evaluating the way you interact with the world and your own neighbors or community members.

According to Southern Utah University Center for Diversity and Inclusion, you can follow the below suggestions to become a better ally that are easy to implement into your life and cost you nothing:

  • Stop telling racist jokes - stop laughing at racist jokes
  • Understand that black people face struggles other races do not
  • Be intolerant of intolerance
  • Confront your racism and don’t be fragile/fall back on guilt
  • Be proactive about inclusion in your daily life
  • Temper the knee-jerk reaction to be offended and do a little research, educate yourself
  • Actively participate in diversifying media (and your own media intake) to include black voices
  • Make black friends, make an effort to diversify your social spheres
  • Stop making an anecdotal self-experience (I’ve been there too...) discount what we’re learning about a black person’s story/experience
  • Start and encourage dialogues across difference
  • Use your privilege (and your physical and monetary resources) to support Black people, issues, businesses, and projects

Azis also suggested some organizations, readings and documentaries to consume that will help you understand more about experiences outside yourself:

About the Author:

Erin began her career at News 6 as an assignment editor, then became a show producer. She is now a digital storyteller as part of the Click Orlando team.